Suburban San Antonio: Six Solutions for a Sustainable Future
Hi! Ace here.
To gloss over a number of details, I grew up most of my life in and around San Antonio. Most people know my hometown for one of three things: the Spurs, the Alamo, and the Riverwalk. Now with the presidential debates, Julian Castro. What most people don’t know is that San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the United States and 2nd largest in Texas, 24th largest metro area in the US and 3rd largest in Texas, and in the Top 25 fastest growing metro areas in the United States. I bring this up because when we have a lot of discussions about density and sustainability in the US, San Antonio seems to be left out of those discussions. It sits underneath the shadows of Houston, Dallas, and Austin as a city people know of but generally don’t regard as a major player in most urban senses of the word. But a city of over 1.5 million and a region of 2.5 million cannot be ignored. To showcase a bit more of the city and the future it can strive for, these are my personal wishes for a more sustainable San Antonio:
1. Build more densely for families
Density is a major indicator of how sustainable a city is, however the way that density is actually designed should be based on the demographics of the city and those moving to it. Texas as a whole has the second largest percentage of people between the ages of 0-18 (behind Utah), and the second highest number of individuals in this age bracket behind California with a total of over 7.7 million. San Antonio also has a median age of 33.2, nearly five years lower than the US median age of 38. This means that when designing new residences that there should be a focus on larger units with more bedrooms. There should also be shifts in design that still allow for smaller scale housing with as little as three units on site. The only place I ever lived in that was owned by my family was the house of my grandmother, which at times had three generations living under one roof. Providing this as an option for some families allows for density to occur in a way that can still be affordable for the average resident.
2. Center development around communities
Unless you’re a tourist around the Riverwalk, it is rare to see more than one San Antonian walking anywhere unless it is at a park or at the mall. This is understandable; the city as a whole is not built in a way that makes it convenient or safe to walk and, being Texas, summer is extremely hot. I remember one of my professors at the University of Texas, Sinclair Black to be specific, used to say that a Texan isn’t interested in walking more than three blocks before they either get into a car, a bus, or get to their destination. Using that mindset, I would recommend the city take efforts to effectively encourage a collection of town centers that are centered around parks, schools, or churches. In this way you are taking existing social infrastructure and augmenting it into large walkable islands and neighborhoods that are built upon great places that people already go to.
3. Protect the Best Parts of San Antonio: The trees and the water
If you fly into the city during the day, one of the most striking things you will see is just how green San Antonio is. Something that is also instilled in every SA resident growing up is the importance of water (thanks SAWS commercials!) and the role of the river in how the city has grown over time. Natural resources are important things to be protected, so when creating plans for the future growth of the city it is imperative that development be done in a way that combats sprawl and works to increase the tree canopy and visibility of existing rivers and creeks. San Antonio has an excellent Tree Ordinance already in place that does well at preserving the existing canopy and earned the city a designation of Tree City USA in 2016. This means the majority of the focus should be on minimizing development in the Edwards Aquifer Contributing Zone, creating higher impervious cover limits in the Recharge Zone, and potentially even a growth boundary being set by Bexar county.
4. Improve Food Access
Given that the culture around here is to drive, grocery stores are hard to get to without a car. That said, there are many households in the SA metro that do not have a car, as many as 9%. The map shown above shows all of the food deserts in the city, which are defined as areas where at least 33 percent of the population live a mile or more from a supermarket or large grocery store. What this means is that there are large portions of the city that do not have easy access to fresh food. Sustainability of the city is tied to the health and wellbeing of its residents, and without access to fresh food local will be more likely to suffer from obesity. In some good news, the City of San Antonio is making efforts to fix this issue by working with convenience stores to provide more access to fresh food. There should be a larger push for more grocery stores with smaller footprints that can reduce overhead and allow for more locations to exist across the city. This would help to create options that are within walking or biking distance.
5. Embrace Micro-mobility
Scooters and bikes, bikes and scooters: they are not just for recreation! Create fully protected bike lanes that can be used by both and develop a grid that not only can benefit the tourism in downtown but allows for people to get around their neighborhoods. Most of the roads around the city are essentially mini-highways (i.e. more than two lanes each way wide). We should take a car lane and repurpose it to allow for bike lanes that are so good even abuelita can go down to the tiendita and get her lotto ticket without needing a car.
6. Invest in EVs
As much as I am completely for mass transit and the benefits of a multimodal future, San Antonio as it currently stands is simply a city that is too large to provide an effective transit system that is better than driving. The city should make efforts to move as many individuals to electric vehicles in order to reduce emissions and focus VIA (the local transit agency) efforts on providing a quality and frequent transit network within Loop 410. That also means electrifying VIA, which I am glad to see the agency taking steps to do. In my dream world we would charge transportation impact fees with new development outside the Loop, but I can only imagine the uproar locally and at the state level about such a decision.
I know that if we are to make significant changes and improvements to the way people live in cities and how we design architecture for them, every major city needs to be a part of this conversation, and that includes San Antonio. The city has a very long and rich history, over 300 years long to be exact, so I know there is no shortage of architectural inspiration to draw from as the next decades of change happen. The focus should be on policies that create a more environmentally sustainable future and improve upon the great neighborhoods that already exist here. They will not be fast or easy changes to make, but they will be significant and improve the lives of all individuals that live here.